Author: Strother, Eric S
Date published: March 1, 2011
Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz. By John Howland. ( Jazz Perspectives.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. [x, 340 p. ISBN 978-0472116058 (hardcover), $75; ISBN 9780472033164 (paperback), $28.95.] Music examples, tables, facsimiles, photographs, index.
For some, the term "symphonic jazz" is a contradiction; the through-composed, "classical" artifact seems at odds with the improvisation and vitality of jazz. For others it summons up those instances where jazz infiltrates the concert stage in the form of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue or Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto. Few imagine the converse-jazz mixed with elements of concert music. It is this body of music at the core of John Howland's Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz.
The terms "concert jazz" and "symphonic jazz" refer to a body of music that blends the rhythmic and harmonic character of jazz with the structural character of concert music, along with its emphasis on orchestration. It is often traced to the work of Paul Whiteman, a white bandleader from Denver who wanted to "make a lady of jazz" by adding elements of the symphonic tradition, most notably an emphasis on precise and varied orchestrations. Like other musical fusions, the interactions between jazz and symphonic elements were as numerous and varied as the composers and songwriters who employed them. Howland uses Whiteman's style as a model against which to compare the styles of Ellington and Johnson. It is not held up as an ideal to which the other men either succeed or fail in measuring up, but rather as an established model that both men were aware of and as a point of comparison.
Duke Ellington's contributions to symphonic jazz are well documented. Ellington is frequently regarded as the first jazz composer, an acknowledgment that his approach to writing bore similarities to that of composers of concert music. One can see this in his interest in programmatic compositions (i.e., "Daybreak Express," "Harlem Airshaft") and the so-called "Ellington effect," which refers to his tendency to put orchestration and timbre at the forefront of his compositions by writing parts for individual performers rather than a generic set of instruments. This desire and ability to put the right player on the right part sometimes necessitated changing the arrangement on the bandstand or in the recording studio.
Beginning with his Creole Rhapsody of 1931, Ellington exhibited a desire to write extended compositions that drew increasingly on symphonic formal designs. How - land considers the apex of this trend to be Black, Brown, and Beige, an extended suite premiered at his January 23, 1943 concert at Carnegie Hall. In fact, Howland dedicates more space to the discussion of this work than to that of any other in the book. Ellington aficionados will notice that his later, more mature suites, such as the Far East Suite, receive only passing mention. The reason for this is likely twofold. First, Howland is focusing mainly on compositions from the 1920s to the 1940s, and these later suites were written in the 1950s and 1960s. Second, he considers these suites to be "collections of disparate movements" (p. 194) rather than the congruent extended compositions that are the focus of this work.
Howland dedicates a chapter to Ellington's Carnegie Hall concerts as further evidence of his dedication to symphonic jazz. From 1943 to 1951, Ellington's orchestra performed at the prestigious venue eight times, each performance featuring an extended composition. Having discussed the first of these, Black, Brown, and Beige, in an earlier chapter, Howland focuses on New World A-Comin' from the December 11, 1943 concert and Harlem from the final concert on January 21, 1951. He dedicates some space to Night Creature and Non-Violent Integration-the two works that, along with Harlem, appeared on the 1964 recording The Symphonic Ellington.
While Howland's coverage of Ellington is extensive, with the exception of some of these later extended works there is little new ground covered for this composer. This is not really Howland's fault. So much has already been written about Duke Ellington that it would be difficult to find something truly new about which to write.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of this book is the focus on the symphonic jazz contributions of James P. Johnson. Johnson is regarded as the "father of stride piano," and that is his legacy as transmitted through jazz history and appreciation textbooks. Outside of "Carolina Shout" and "Charleston," most of his compositions remain unknown to most jazz fans. Howland introduces readers to a wealth of Johnson's compositions, most notably Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody, and the Harlem Symphony. Howland discusses Yame - kraw at length as an African American parallel to Rhapsody in Blue. In so doing he examines the development of what Johnson called a "serious orchestral piano style" (p. 60) based around a gestural usage of musical contrast and thematic development.
Howland analyzes Harlem Symphony as part of Johnson's quest for recognition in the world of "serious music." In fact, the tension between "serious" or concert music on the one hand, and jazz on the other, is one of the undercurrents of the book. By working with a fusion of jazz and concert music, Johnson (and Ellington to a lesser extent) found that his work was not fully accepted by either audience. After Yamekraw, he began to focus more on appealing to the concert music audience.
In addition to these two men, a third central theme is Harlem, and in particular the impact of the "New Negro" movement, or Harlem Renaissance, on the development of symphonic jazz. One of the musical goals of this movement was to elevate African American folk music to the level of high culture. It was a counterbalance to the image of African Americans found in popular music, which in the early years of the twentieth century was fostered by minstrel shows and "coon songs." The leaders of the New Negro movement wanted to counteract negative stereotypes by presenting art, literature, and music that was on par with that of Europeans and white Americans while still reflecting the African American heritage of its creators. Howland emphasizes the interactions between Ellington and Johnson and figures like Will Marion Cook in order to situate them within the New Negro movement. He further illustrates the centrality of Harlem to African American symphonic jazz by highlighting the numerous compositions by these men that "rhapsodize" on life and culture in Harlem.
Part of Howland's aim in writing this book is to bring to light obscure compositions and generate interest in them, leading to new performances and a renewed market for older recordings. To that end, he succeeds mightily. I found myself looking through my Ellington collection for recordings of "Creole Rhapsody," "Remi - niscing in Tempo," and "Harlem." I searched the Internet for streamed recordings of Johnson's works, especially "Yame - kraw" and "Harlem Symphony." I wanted to hear for myself how this music sounded. The pairing of Ellington with Johnson is a case of the student's helping the teacher. Ellington fans and scholars will read this book and discover Johnson as more than just Ellington's mentor, and will perhaps seek out more of Johnson's music. The pages of analysis, musical excerpts, and formal tables may turn off casual fans, but those interested in getting deep into the music will find them to be an excellent starting point for their own explorations.
Eric S. Strother
University of Kentucky